Unaware that he would soon be dead, he delivered his final lecture with great enthusiasm and commitment. Friday had been a long day, but the hours had passed quickly. His audience was attentive, and it warmed Jakob Ahlbin’s heart that so many people besides himself were interested in the subject.
When he realized just a few days later that all was lost, he would briefly wonder if it had been his last lecture that did it. Whether he had been too open in the question-and-answer session, revealed that he was in possession of knowledge nobody wanted him to have. But he did not really think so. Up until the very moment of his death he was convinced it would have been impossible to ward off disaster. When he felt the pressure of the hard hunting pistol against his temple, everything was already over. But it did not stop him from feeling great regret that his life had to end there. He still had so much to give.
Over the years, Jakob had given more lectures than he could remember, and he knew he had put his talent as a fine speaker to good use. The content of his speech was usually much the same, as were the questions that followed it. The audience varied. Sometimes its members had been instructed to attend, sometimes they sought him out of their own accord. It made no difference to Jakob. He was at ease on the podium no matter what.
He generally began by showing the pictures of the boats. Perhaps it was a mean trick, but he knew that it always hit the spot. A dozen people in a boat that was far too small, week after week, increasingly exhausted and desperate. And like a faint mirage on the horizon there was Europe, like a dream or a flight of the imagination, something they were never meant to experience in real life.
“We think this is an unknown phenomenon for us,” he would start. “We think it belongs to another part of the world, something which has never happened to us and never will.”
The picture behind him quietly changed and a map of Europe came up on the screen.
“Memories are short sometimes,” he sighed. “We choose not to remember that not so many decades ago, Europe was in flames and people were fleeing in panic from one country to another. And we forget that barely a century ago, more than a million Swedes decided to leave this country for a new start in America.”
He ran his hand through his hair, stopped for a moment, and checked that his audience was listening. The picture behind him changed again, now showing Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann, a still from the film of Vilhelm Moberg’s Emigrants series.
“A million people,” he repeated loudly. “Don’t for one minute be fooled into thinking Karl-Oskar and Kristina saw their trip to America as anything but a punishment. Don’t imagine they wouldn’t have stayed in Sweden if they could. Just think what it would take to force you to make a break like that, to leave your old life behind and start all over again in another continent without a krona in your pocket and with no more of your possessions than you could cram into one pitiful bloody suitcase.”
The expletive was deliberate. A clergyman swearing was always highly shocking.
He knew very well where he could expect to run into opposition. Sometimes it came when he showed the Karl-Oskar and Kristina picture. Sometimes it was later. This afternoon it happened straight after the first time he swore. A youth sitting in a row near the front clearly found it provocative and raised his hand before Jakob could go on.
“Excuse me interrupting,” he said in a shrill voice, “but how the hell can you draw a parallel like that?”
Jakob knew what was coming next, but still frowned, playing along for the good of the cause.
“Karl-Oskar and Kristina and all the other Swedes who went to America worked themselves into the ground when they got there. They built that damn country. They learned the language and adopted the culture. Got jobs straightaway and kept their heads down. This lot who come over to Sweden nowadays don’t do any of that. They live in their own little ghettos, don’t give a shit about learning Swedish, live on benefits, and don’t bother to get jobs.”
The hall went quiet. A sense of unease swept through the audience like an unquiet soul. Unease that there might be trouble, but also the fear of being exposed as someone who shared the young man’s opinions. Quiet muttering spread through the hall and Jakob waited a few moments longer. He had often tried to explain this to any politicians who would still listen: staying silent did nothing to defuse thoughts and frustrations like those just expressed.
The young man shifted in his seat, folded his arms, squared his chin, and waited for the clergyman to answer. Jakob let him wait, assuming an expression to indicate that the comment had come as news to him. He looked at the picture behind him, and then back at his audience.
“Do you think that’s what they thought when they made the journey here? Take the ones who paid up to fifteen thousand dollars to get from burning Iraq to Sweden. Did they dream of a life in a crummy sixties complex from the Homes for a Million program, on some sink estate way out on the edge of the city? Of being stuck there with ten other adults in a three-room flat, day after day, with nothing to do, separated from their family? Alone? Because fifteen thousand is how much it costs for one person to make the trip.”
He held one long finger straight up in the air.
“Do you think they ever, in their wildest imagination, could have thought that they would be met with the sort of exclusion we’re giving them? Offering a trained doctor a job as a taxi driver if he’s lucky, and someone less educated not even that.”
Being careful not to look reproachful, Jakob turned his eye on the young man who had spoken.
“I believe they thought like Karl-Oskar and Kristina. I think they expected it would be like getting to America a hundred years ago. Where the sky was the limit for anyone prepared to put their back into it, where hard work paid off.”
A young woman caught Jakob’s gaze. Her eyes were shining and she had a crumpled paper tissue in her hand.
“I believe,” he said gently, “there are very few people who would choose to sit staring at the wall of a flat on an estate if they felt there was any alternative. That’s the conclusion my work has brought me to, anyway,” he added.
And that was about where the mood changed. Exactly as it always did. The audience sat quietly, listening with growing interest. The pictures kept on changing, keeping pace as his tale of the immigrants who had come to Sweden over recent decades unfolded. Painfully sharp photographs documented men and women shut in a lorry, driving across Turkey and on to Europe.
“For fifteen thousand dollars an Iraqi today gets a passport, the trip, and a story. The networks, the people smugglers, extend all over Europe and reach right down to the conflict zones that force people to flee.”
“What do you mean by a story?” asked a woman in the audience.
“An asylum seeker’s narrative,” explained Jakob. “The smuggler tells them what they need to say to have a chance of being allowed to stay in Sweden.”
“But fifteen thousand dollars?” a man asked dubiously. “That’s a huge amount of money. Does it really cost that much?”
“Of course not,” Jakob replied patiently. “The people behind these networks are earning incredible sums. It’s a ruthless market, and totally unjust. But it’s also—in spite of its brutality—to some degree understandable. Europe is closed to people in need. The only ways in are illegal ones. And they are controlled by criminals.”
More hands were waving and Jakob answered question after question. Finally there was only one hand left, a young girl’s. The one clutching the crumpled tissue. She was red-haired, with an overgrown fringe hanging down like a curtain over her eyes, giving her an anonymous look. The sort of person you can’t describe afterward.
“Are there people who get involved in all this out of sheer solidarity?” she asked.
It was a new question, one Jakob had never had at any of his lectures before.
“After all, there are plenty of organizations in Sweden and the rest of Europe working with refugees, so isn’t there anyone there who helps asylum seekers get to Sweden?” she went on. “In a better and more humane way than the smugglers?”
The question sank in and took hold. He hesitated for quite a while before he replied. Not quite knowing how much he ought to say.
“Helping people enter Europe illegally is a criminal act. Regardless of what we think about it, that’s a fact. And it also means anyone doing that would be committing a punishable offense, which is enough to deter even the most noble of benefactors.”
He hesitated again.
“But I have heard that things might be starting to change. That there are people who empathize strongly enough with the refugees to want to give them the chance of getting to Europe for a considerably lower sum. But as I said, that’s only hearsay, nothing I know for certain.”
He paused, felt his pulse start to race as he prayed a silent prayer.
He wound things up the way he always did.
“As I’ve told you, I don’t think we need to worry that there are vast numbers of people in the world wishing they lived on a sink estate in Stockholm with no work or permanent housing. What we really must think about, on the other hand, is this: Is there anything a father will not do to make secure provision for his children’s future? Is there any act a human being will not commit to create a better life for him- or herself?”
• • •
At the same time as Jakob Ahlbin was bringing his final lecture to a close and receiving loud applause, a Boeing 737 that had left Istanbul a few hours before touched down at Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport. The captain who had flown the plane to the capital was informing the passengers that it was minus three outside and that snow was forecast for the evening. He said he hoped to welcome them back on board soon and then an air steward asked all passengers to keep their safety belts fastened until the sign was switched off.
Ali listened nervously to the voices making the announcements but understood neither the English nor the other language they spoke, which he took to be Swedish. Sweat was trickling down his back, making the shirt he had bought for the journey stick to his skin. He tried not to lean back against his seat, but did not want to attract attention by leaning forward as he had done on the flight from Baghdad to Istanbul. He had been asked several times by air stewards if everything was all right and whether he needed anything to drink or eat. He shook his head, wiped the sweat from his top lip with the back of his hand, and closed his eyes. He hoped that they would be there soon, that it would all be over and he would know he had reached safety.
He was tingling all over with anxiety. He squeezed the armrests with both hands and clenched his jaw. For what must have been the hundredth time he looked around the plane, trying to work out who his escort might be. Who was the secret person sitting among all the other passengers just to make sure he behaved himself and followed his instructions? A shadow, sent by his liberator. For his own good. For everybody else’s good. So there would be no problem for others, like him, who would be given the chance to come to Sweden on such generous terms as himself.
The false passport was tucked into the breast pocket of his shirt. He had put it in his hand luggage to start with, but had to take it out when the stewardess came and pointed at the sign saying his seat was next to an emergency exit. That meant you were not allowed to have your bags under the seat in front of you but had to stow them in the overhead compartments. Ali, almost giving way to panic, could not bear to be separated from his passport. With trembling hands he opened the zip of his bag and rummaged for the passport, which had slipped down to the bottom. He gripped its hard covers, thrust it into his shirt pocket, and handed the bag to the stewardess.
The instructions once he was in Sweden were crystal clear. On no account was he to ask for asylum while he was still at the airport. Nor was he to leave his documentation behind or hand it over to the escort on the plane before he got off. The passport contained a visa that said he was a business traveler from one of the Gulf states and entitled to enter the country. The fact that he spoke no English should not be a problem.
The plane taxied in, gliding surprisingly softly over the hard frost-covered tarmac and approached Gate 37, where the passengers were to disembark.
“What happens if I fail?” Ali had asked his contact in Damascus who had first made him the offer.
“Don’t worry so much,” the contact replied with a thin-lipped smile.
“I’ve got to know,” said Ali. “What happens if I fail in any of these tasks I’ve got to do? I’ve spoken to other people going to the same place. This isn’t the way it usually happens.”
The contact’s look had darkened.
“I thought you were grateful, Ali.”
“Oh, I am,” he said quickly. “It’s just that I wonder—”
“Stop wondering so much,” the contact broke in. “And you are not, under any circumstances, to say anything about this to anyone else. Not ever. You’ve got to focus on just one thing, and that’s getting into this country the way we’ve arranged, and then you must carry out the task we shall be giving you. After that you can be reunited with your family. That’s what you want, isn’t it?”
“More than anything else.”
“Good, so worry less and focus more. If you don’t, the risk is that you could be more unhappy than you have ever been in your life.”
“I can’t be any more unhappy than I am now,” whispered Ali, head bowed.
“Oh, yes you can,” answered his contact in a voice so cold that Ali stopped breathing from sheer terror. “Imagine if you lost your whole family, Ali. Or they lost you. Being alone is the only true unhappiness. Remember that, for your family’s sake.”
Ali closed his eyes and knew he would never forget. He recognized a threat when he heard one.
As he passed through passport control ten minutes later and knew he had got into the country, the thought came back to him again. From this point on, there was only one way forward: the path taking him away from the life he was now more certain than ever he had left behind him forever.
Excerpted from Silenced by Kristina Ohlsson
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